DWINDLING crowds, a general apathy, the team showing few signs of winning promotion to Division One, not a great deal to enthuse about in the FA Cup. Though the Swinging Sixties were soon to make Britain one of the most exciting places in the world to live, prospects in the Potteries looked decidedly gloomier - on the face of it.
Manager Frank Taylor had been unable to deliver the main prize of promotion, but beneath the surface important footings had been put in place. The youth policy was again churning out quality young, local players and Tony Waddington, first appointed as a coach in 1952 and upgraded to Taylor's assistant five years later, took over as manager in June 1960. City had finished 17th, avoiding relegation by five points with a defence which had leaked 83 goals.
Waddington decided new tactics were needed - tactics which would make the team harder to beat while he brought in players who would eventually turn Stoke into one of the most graceful and attractive sides in England. The tactics became known as "Waddington's Wall" and did the trick. Though City held on to their Second Division status in the new manager's first season by just three points the general consensus was that the corner had been turned.
Attendances, however, were still disturbingly low and only 8,409 turned up for the league game against Preston on October 14, 1961. Waddington, however, had a master plan... By any stretch of the imagination, the return of Stanley Matthews to the Club was the stuff of dreams. After a glittering 14-year career with Blackpool following his departure from City in 1947, culminating in the famous 1953 Matthews FA Cup final, he was tempted home by Tony Waddington's skilful overtures. Two weeks after the poor crowd against Preston 35,974 crammed into the ground to witness Stan's homecoming against Huddersfield. He was 46 years old and his £3,000 transfer fee was wiped out by the attendance on that first day alone. But no-one could put a price on what his return meant to the Club and the fans.
The impetus of Stan's return saw the team surge up the table to finish eighth and no one was in doubt that the 1962-63 Centenary season would bring a return to the First Division with the magician weaving his spell on the right-wing. And so it proved. Promotion was duly clinched, along with the Second Division title, and City marched proudly back into the top flight to begin what would be a colourful, entertaining, successful and memorable stay. Matthews, the greatest player in the Club's history, and Waddington, the greatest manager, were an irresistible combination. Consolidation was easily achieved in the first season back, even though Stan was winding down his career and played just nine league games. His presence remained inspirational, and only defeat to Leicester City over two legs in the final of the fledgling League Cup prevented the arrival of a first major trophy.
The manager knew experience counted - Dennis Viollet, Jackie Mudie, Roy Vernon, Maurice Setters and Jimmy McIlroy were all brought to the Club when others thought their careers were over. Then Club had a knight in the ranks - Sir Stan being rewarded for his services to football in the 1965 New Year's Honours list, little over a month before he played his 701st, and final, league game against Fulham in February, aged 50.
City had two scrapes with relegation in the second-half of the Sixties, attaining safety by three points in 1967 and the same margin a year later, but Waddington had already pulled off another master stroke in the transfer market - signing England goalkeeper and 1966 World Cup hero Gordon Banks from Leicester for £52,000. By today's figures it was a ridiculously paltry sum. Banks was England's undisputed Number One and rated the best goalkeeper in Europe, if not the world. Though the team sometimes struggled, his stability ensured there would be no return to the Second Division and provided the springboard for the success to come.